Relativity: Inside and Out

Thomas J. McFarlane
28 October 1997

Abstract: We explore our understanding of both outer experience and inner experience in light of the radical changes in our concepts of space and time brought about by the special and general theories of relativity. The relationship between outer space and inner space is explored, and it is proposed that there is a deep and intimate connection between the two.


Not so long ago, the heavens were truly heavenly, filled with crystalline spheres, angels, gods, and permeated with sacred value. Although we no longer conceive of the heavens as crystalline spheres today, who has not gazed into the vast darkness of the night sky and felt, deep inside, the gentle voice of profound mystery and awe? It seems that the farther we look into the outer space of the universe, the deeper we look into the inner space of our conscious existence, as if there were a hidden connection between the depths of our souls and the depths of cosmic space. What is the significance of this mysterious connection? Why is it that the experience of heavens outside us should evoke an experience of heavens inside us? If we think of the universe as an inert space filled with material particles, as we are taught by classical physics, then it is difficult to answer these questions. Modern physics, however, has challenged our most basic notions of the physical world, and opened the door to more meaningful answers to these questions. In this paper, we will first focus on how relativity theory has undermined our conceptions of space in the outer realm of experience. This will lead us naturally to reconsider our conceptions of inner space, and to propose a radical change in our understanding of the relationship between inner and outer space.

Relativity in Outer Space

Our understanding of space has transformed dramatically over the course of the past few hundred years. This transformation can be divided, roughly, into stages representing a gradual stripping away of preconceptions regarding the absolute existence of space. Another way of looking at this transformation is as a process of more and more subtle discrimination between the properties of space that are objective and the properties that are due to our own way of describing space. Properties that were at first thought to be objective were, under more careful analysis and observation, found to have an essential subjective component.

Several hundred years ago, the universe was conceived as an independent and inert three-dimensional Euclidean space within which separate and localized material atoms were located. The atoms had unique and well-defined positions which were defined in terms of a fixed coordinate system. Because objects naturally gravitated toward the Earth, it appeared self-evident that nature preferred the origin for this coordinate system (i.e. the center of the universe) to be fixed at the center of the Earth. The Earth, in other words, provided an absolute frame of reference for all position and for all movement in the universe.

This concept of absolute space was first challenged when Copernicus shifted the center of the universe from the Earth to the Sun. By shifting the base of reference to the Sun, Copernicus set the Earth into motion and used this motion to account for the anomalous retrograde movement of the planets. The observed motions of the planets, in other words, were no longer considered entirely objective, but were now considered a combination of objective movement and changes in our subjective point of view. This shift in the base of reference comes with a radical change in our interpretation of observed phenomena, and transforms many previously objective physical movements into mere appearances without any objective reality. For example, the Sun no longer rises and sets, and it no longer moves around the Earth once a day as it plainly appears to do. The Moon and stars no longer move across the sky once each day. Instead, these apparent movements are illusions, projected onto the phenomena by the fact that we are unconscious of the role our own point of view plays in determining what we observe. It is the rotation of the Earth that causes us to rotate once per day, giving rise to the appearance of the Sun, Moon, and stars moving across our sky. Remarkably, the simple act of shifting the base of reference from the Earth to the Sun has radical consequences for what is and is not objective reality. This Copernican shift, however, was only a small first step.

Galileo took Copernicus one step further. The implication of the Copernican shift is that any point can be considered the center of the universe. The Sun is a center for the solar system, the Earth is a center about which the Moon orbits, and each planet provided a center for its own set of satellites. Position became relativized. Moreover, Galileo realized, the Earth no longer defined a privileged state of motion within the universe. Thus, movement also became relativized, undermining the notion of absolute rest. This principle, known today as Galilean relativity, states that the laws of nature, i.e. the objective properties of reality, do not depend on whether we describe the world from the point of view of a reference frame at rest or a uniformly moving reference frame. Thus it is impossible to say whether it is the object that is moving and we are still, or it is the object that is still and we are moving. In other words, movement and rest are not strictly objective properties of the world, but contain implicit reference to a subjective base of reference. If we are unconscious of this subjective movement, then we unwittingly project it upon outer objects, confusing properties of the subject and object. Thus arises the illusion that the movement of an observed object is, in itself, real. In light of Galilean relativity, however, it is recognized that the center of space is nowhere, and it is neither moving nor at rest.

In 1905 Einstein took Galilean relativity one step further. His seminal paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies"[1] explored the consequences of extending relativity to include light as well as matter. The implications were radical. Maxwell's wave equation for light contains a fundamental constant, c, which is the speed of light. Since this equation, which is a law of nature, must be the same in all uniform reference frames, the speed of light must be the same in all uniform reference frames. Remarkably, this proposition revolutionizes our conceptions of space, time, matter, and energy. In particular, spatial intervals are no longer objective realities, but depend on the reference frame, or point of view, of the observer. For example, the observed length of an object is no longer objective or real, but depends on the speed of the observer with respect to the object. Similarly, measurements of time, energy and mass also lose their strict objective significance, and can not be considered to exist in any absolute sense independent of the point of view from which they are observed. Thus, the idea that there are objects having objectively existing properties such as size, mass, energy and age is an illusion. Because their values are different for different observers, these properties have no meaningful existence independent of the reference frame of an observer. More and more of the world that we once thought was objective is now seen as determined by the point of view of the observer.

The fundamental philosophical principle which provided the insight and motivation for the special theory of relativity was that the physical laws should not depend upon the reference frame used to describe or express observed events. In the case of the special theory of relativity, however, this principle was restricted to the special case of uniform reference frames, i.e. frames whose movements differ only by a constant velocity. Einstein, however, recognized that this restriction of the principle of relativity is unsatisfactory and that the laws of nature should be invariant under arbitrary transformations of coordinate systems. In particular, the laws should be just as true in accelerated frames of reference as well as unaccelerated (i.e. uniformly moving) frames of reference. This general principle is the basis for his general theory of relativity, which he formulated in 1915.[2]

Einstein reasoned that because there are no observable differences between a frame subject to uniform acceleration and a frame subject to a constant gravitational field, the laws of physics cannot give preference to one of these frames over the other. The amazing consequence of this insight is that gravity is not a force causing acceleration of objects in space, but is a curvature of space itself, i.e. gravity is the way that coordinate systems in different regions of space are related to each other. Thus the force of gravity is an illusion. In reality, planets do not curve through space under the influence of the Sun's gravitational field, but they follow straight lines through a space that is curved by the mass of the Sun. Another way of looking at it is that gravity is an imaginary pseudo-force that is an artifact of our unconscious assumption that the geometry of space is everywhere flat. When this assumption is projected upon the entire universe, the observed movements of planets are attributed to an objective gravitational force. In fact, however, the planets do not experience any force at all, and are freely following straight lines in a curved space.

In general relativity, not only are position, velocity, time, mass, and energy stripped of their objective existence, but gravity, too, is seen as an imaginary psychological projection with no objective existence independent of the reference frame of an observer. Thus, Einstein wrote, general relativity "takes away from space and time the last remnant of physical objectivity."[3] It is important to point out that Einstein's understanding was that the concept of space in general relativity does not refer to a physical object, but rather to our method of measuring spatial relationships between objects. Similarly, the concept of curvature of space does not refer to a curvature of some objectively existing physical space, but to the manner in which measurements of spatial intervals change from place to place. In other words, space is a construct used to organize our experience of the outer world, and spatial attributes of reality have no objective existence, independent of the reference frame of an observer.

It is interesting to note that quantum physics is quite similar to relativity theory in that it also requires the renunciation of the objective existence of fundamental physical notions. As Niels Bohr wrote, "a comparison of purely logical aspects of relativistic and complementary argumentation reveals striking similarities as regards the renunciation of the absolute significance of conventional physical attributes of objects."[4] In particular, while relativity has forced the renunciation of the absolute significance of space and time, replacing them with spatial and temporal measurements that have meaningful existence only in relation to a selected reference frame, quantum theory has forced the renunciation of the absolute significance of objectively existing properties, replacing them with observable quantities whose very possibility of measurement depends on the selection of a measurement apparatus. The selection of a reference frame in relativity is therefore analogous to the selection of a measurement apparatus in quantum theory insofar as without them, no objective meaning can be given to the quantities which we normally attribute to objects. "This new feature of natural philosophy," Bohr writes, "means a radical revision of our attitude as regards physical reality, which may be paralleled with the fundamental modification of all ideas regarding the absolute character of physical phenomena, brought about by the general theory of relativity."[5]

Relativity in Inner Space

These radical statements concerning the nature of space echo the statements made long before by some philosophers and contemplatives. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant argues in his Transcendental Aesthetic that space and time are not empirical realities derived from outer experience, but rather conditions for the possibility of appearances, i.e., the concepts of space and time must be presupposed in order for an external world to appear to us at all. In other words, space and time are subjective conditions of experience and are nothing if considered independent of our sensory faculties (i.e., in themselves). It is interesting to note that Kant compared his philosophy with the revolution brought about in physics by Copernicus.[6] Just as Copernicus shifted the base of reference from the Earth to the Sun, thereby accounting for the apparent retrograde movement of the planets with a motion of the observing subject, so Kant shifted the base of reference in philosophy from the empirical ego to the transcendental subject, thereby accounting for the spatial and temporal regularities of the world with subjective structures that condition our modes of experience. Kant's these subjective structures, which Kant calls the forms of sensibility and the categories of understanding, are analogous to the reference frame of relativity and the measurement apparatus of quantum theory. If these subjective structures are ignored, however, they are then unconsciously projected outward as independently existing features of the objective world. We begin to see that the objective world is largely an illusion and does not exist independent of our mode of experiencing it.

Our common experience of the world is conditioned by many presumptions that are both unconscious to us and, worse yet, incorrect. Some of these presumptions, as we have seen, were uncovered in the last 100 years by modern physics, and have undermined many of our deepest ideas of an objective world existing independent of an observational reference frame. If we take this process seriously, it appears to suggest that there may be no objective world at all. What if this proposition were actually true? As radical as it may sound, there have been those who have testified to it. For example, the contemporary Hindu saint Ananda Moyi Ma proclaims, "The inward and the outward are indissolubly united and form a single great eternal Current."[7] The American poet Walt Whitman put it thus: "Strange and hard that paradox true I give, objects gross and the unseen soul are one."[8] A particular consequence of this radical proposition is that there is no distinction between the inner space of the mind, and the outer space of the cosmos. As the contemporary mythologist Joseph Campbell said, "outer space and inner space are the same."[9] If we take this proposition seriously, then when we look into outer space, we are looking into inner space. The universe is a reflection of our soul, and knowledge of one gives us knowledge of the other. It is completely natural, then, that we should be deeply moved within when we gaze into the depths of space.

Just as the Copernican revolution disposed of the problem of retrograde motion, but introduced the question of why we do not feel the movement of the Earth, so this revolution raises new questions. How is it that we experience an objective world at all, and why is it so regular? If it is subjectively determined, then why are we not able to change it in any way we like?

We have already indicated the basic mechanism by which the illusion of objectivity arises. When a subjective structure is unconscious, it is projected outward as an objective existence. Thus the objective world is the way we experience our own deep psychological structures when we are not conscious of them. As the modern American transcendental philosopher Franklin Merrell-Wolff explains, "In some sense the individual subject makes the object that he or she realizes or experiences. However, I do not mean to suggest by this that the object necessarily is a consciously willed creation of the individual subject. It would be, at least more usually, a projecting process from the subject that is unconscious to the individual ego. Indeed, there is much evidence from analytic psychology that gives substantial support to this idea."[10] The implication is that, we experience an externally objective world only to the extent that we are unconscious. Wolff goes on to explain, "The objective world as a whole is a precipitate from Consciousness in its most comprehensive sense, but it is only partly determined by perceptual and conceptual consciousness. The precipitate from Consciousness beyond perception and conception appears as objective and independent to the empirical individual...If any individual were to become completely conscious, there would no longer be any objective world, except insofar as he or she willed it into being and voluntarily accepted a degree of binding or veiling of his or her consciousness."[11]

How can there be lawfulness and regularity in the objectively appearing world if it actually originates in the subject? The key to understanding this question is to recognize that there are transpersonal or archetypal structures of a transcendental Self. As Wolff further explains, "The Transcendental Self [of Kant] lays down the forms of possible experience and thought such that the private or individual subject is as much conditioned inwardly by this as it is by the matter of external experience. Thus we have a basis for cognizing forms and laws that are not merely private, but that are generally valid for all individuals."[12] Thus, according to this view, the true or real Self is not personal but transpersonal. Because the transpersonal structures are unconscious, however, it appears as though the personal psyche is an objective reality or an ultimate base of reference. Kant's Copernican revolution involved shifting the base from the personal or empirical self to the transpersonal or transcendental Self which is common to all individuals.

Wolff took Kant one step further and even relativized the transcendental Self. As he described it, "We must take a further step, since the Subject or Self, neglected by the Greeks and treated as a constant by Kant, becomes for us a component that is constant and primary only in relation to the object, but in relation to Pure Consciousness is derivative. We might view this Subject as a sort of transcendental phenomenon, i.e. transcendental with respect to the object but standing in something like a phenomenal relationship to Pure Consciousness."[13] Wolff describes the revolution as a shift in the base of reference from the Transcendental Self, or point-I, to the Space of Pure Consciousness itself, or the Space-I. The transcendental Self, which was previously taken as an absolute, is now a point of reference in the Space of Consciousness. He writes, "The Subject or Self occupies a position analogous to that of the parameter in mathematics. In simple and general terms, the parameter may be thought of as a local invariant that varies when considered over a larger domain. With respect to a specific case of a given curve, it stands as the invariant element, but in the generation of a while family of curves of a given type, it is a variable. The ultimate invariant is the plane or space in which the curves lie. This supplies us with a thinkable analogue. With respect to a specific entity, the invariable identity is the Self, but with respect to all creatures and all modes of consciousness, the Self becomes a parameter that varies. Behind and supporting this parameter is the ultimate invariant, Pure Consciousness Itself."[14] Thus, there is a striking similarity between Wolff's Realization and the conception of the universe described by Einstein, since there is no center, or preferred reference frame, for describing the world.

There are additional similarities between Einstein and Wolff. In Wolff's description, the expansion of self-identity from point-I to Space-I involved an integration of the subject with all objects of experience: "The point [-I] is metamorphosed into a kind of space in which the Self and the content of consciousness are blended in one inseparable whole...this is not a state wherein the individual merely finds himself in space, but he is, as a Self, identical with the whole of Space. It is not consciousness as functioning through bodies and aware of objects, but a subjective state dissociated from all bodies and not concerned with objects. Yet it would be incorrect to regard it as a purely homogeneous consciousness in the sense of a fixed state, totally devoid of variety. For consciousness and motion, in some sense, are inseparable."[15] This description of inner space has a remarkable similarity to the description of outer space provided by general relativity. In both cases, the distinction between space and the contents of space dissolves, and space itself becomes dynamic. It appears that Einstein's theory of general relativity is an accurate symbol for what Wolff Realized directly in Consciousness.

The above considerations suggest that inner space and outer space are, at the very least, intimately connected with each other. Moreover, if we are to take seriously the testimony of the mystics and the physicists, it appears that inner space and outer space are the same. As Ananda Moyi Ma says, "Wherever you look, you will see that one unique Presence, indivisible and eternal, is manifested in all the universe, but that it is very difficult to perceive it."[16]


[1]A. Einstein, Annalen der Physik, 17, 1905.
[2]A. Einstein, Annalen der Physik, 49, 1916.
[3]A. Einstein, Annalen der Physik, 49, 1916.
[4]Niels Bohr, "Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics", Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, The Library of Living Philosophers, 1949, p. 237
[5]Niels Bohr, "Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?" Physical Review, 48, 696-702 (1935).
[6]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition.
[7]Ananda Moyi, quoted by Perry in A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, Quinta Essentia, 1971, p. 986.
[8]Walt Whitman, The Complete Poems, Penguin, 1975, p. 245.
[9]Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, St. James Press, Ltd., Toronto, 1985, p. 28.
[10]Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Transformations in Consciousness, SUNY, 1995, p. 145.
[11]Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Transformations in Consciousness, SUNY, 1995, p. 195.
[12]Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Transformations in Consciousness, SUNY, 1995, p. 88.
[13]Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, SUNY, 1994, p. 411.
[14]Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, SUNY, 1994, p. 412.
[15]Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, SUNY, 1994, p. 342-43.
[16]Ananda Moyi, quoted by Perry in A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, Quinta Essentia, 1971, p. 789.